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Thursday, April 14, 2005
Updated: April 15, 12:38 PM ET
Stern's decision based on the biz

By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

One of the skills you refine while in college is the ability to think critically, the capacity to analyze information and reach a logical conclusion.

Apparently one of the skills you sacrifice when a pro sports franchise hands you millions of dollars straight out of high school is the ability to think critically, the capacity to comprehend any situation beyond how it affects you.

Jermaine O'Neal
Jermaine O'Neal doesn't realize that playing in college actually serves the players well.
I reached these conclusions after learning that Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal indicated he thinks commissioner David Stern's bid to institute an NBA draft age limit (20) is driven by racism.

O'Neal is the stereotypical NBA Million Dollar Baby. His youth, lack of formal education and bank account all stand in the way of his grasping the bigger picture. The NBA is headed toward making a good business decision in its next collective bargaining agreement – the players' union is likely to agree with Stern – but O'Neal can't see beyond his own interest.

He jumped from high school to a cushy, million-dollar seat at the end of the Portland Trail Blazers' bench. He can't understand why the league would want to deny another teenager that same rite of passage. And what about LeBron James? He leaped straight from high school to MVP candidate.

In O'Neal's mind, the influx of teenage hoopsters has been very, very good for the NBA. The only people who have a problem with it are the very same people who can't understand why O'Neal, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson sucker punched and coldcocked rowdy Detroit Pistons fans.

It's racism.

No, it's not. It's business. Despite James' success, and the fact that seven strait-outta-hi-skool players earned spots in the NBA All-Star Game, the influx of unprepared teenage ballers has been bad for the NBA. The growth value of NBA franchises is not keeping pace with NFL and MLB franchises. The league isn't as important as it once was, and Stern is trying to head off a tidal wave of negative publicity directed at the league.

OTHER OPINIONS
Scoop Jackson thinks Jermaine O'Neal has every right to question the motives behind an NBA age limit. Cast your vote on the issue.
Fans don't enjoy the game the way they used to, and they're becoming more and more hostile toward the players. O'Neal has a $100-million contract. In his mind he's a huge star. He has no clue how much more of a star he would be had he spent two or three years in college being hyped up by Dick Vitale, Billy Packer, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Clark Kellogg. O'Neal spent his college years sitting on the Portland bench, collecting a fat check. That was good for Jermaine O'Neal. It was not good for the NBA.

David Stern's job is to do what's good for the league. He can't react when the league bottoms out. He'd lose his job. Stern must improve the NBA now and get on top of any image problems that might damage the future financial health of the league.

Not only are players more fundamentally sound after spending a few years in college, they are far more marketable after going through the NCAA hype machine.

I don't care how many jerseys LeBron James sells. I don't care how many endorsement deals King James has. He is not as big a star (or as much of an asset to the league) as Magic Johnson was his first two years in the NBA. Magic and the league benefited from the star power Johnson generated while winning a national championship at Michigan State.

So, yes, David Stern and NBA owners have a vested interest in the success of college basketball. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing racist about NBA owners' wanting their potential employees spending a few years in college becoming more valuable. It's good business.

It's good business for the players, too.

LeBron James
LeBron may turn out to be better, but Magic Johnson made a bigger impact.
It's not uncommon for the prep-turned-pro to sit on the bench for three years maturing mentally and physically. He can't help. He's stealing the roster spot and paycheck of a veteran who might be able to help a team win. Given the makeup of the NBA, that veteran player is more than likely going to be the same color as Jermaine O'Neal.

"I always thought that it was the purpose of the union to protect its members, not potential members," Grant Hill was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I think if anyone gets left out, it's the older players, guys who put equity into this league, card-carrying members paying their dues to the union. I would hope they would be protected."

Now, is O'Neal right that it's hypocritical for the public to be outraged by high school basketball players' turning pro when baseball players have done it for years?

Yes, O'Neal is right. The public outcry is hypocritical, and perhaps driven by a bigoted double-standard. But that is not what is driving Stern and the union to do the right thing. Improving the product and enhancing the marketability of the product is the best protection NBA players have against a fan base that is prone toward hypocrisy and developing nagging double standards.

And that's the bottom line.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for the Kansas City Star. His newspaper is celebrating his 10 years as a columnist with the publishing of Jason's first book, "Love Him, Hate Him: 10 Years of Sports, Passion and Kansas City." It's a collection of Jason's most memorable, thought-provoking and funny columns over the past decade. You can purchase the book at TheKansasCityStore.com. Jason can be reached by e-mail at ballstate68@aol.com.